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Manners and Political Life

Oct. 11, 2017 Restraint in public life is not a foundation of civilization. It is civilization.

By George Friedman

I married a woman born in Australia, of that class that emulated English culture. Loving her as I did, I did not understand the British obsession with table manners. For her, eating a bowl of soup was a work of art, a complex of motions difficult for me to master, and to me incomprehensible in purpose. From the beginning of our love, dinner became for me an exercise of obscure rules governing the movement of food to my mouth. It was a time when conversation was carefully hedged by taboos and obligations. Some things were not discussed at dinner.

Meredith, my wife, grew up elegant and restrained. The enormous body of rules she called good manners rigidly shaped and controlled her passions, which were many. She followed the rules she learned as a child partly out of a desire for others to think well of her, partly because she regarded these manners as the laws of nature. Restraint and propriety were the outward sign of a decent life. The dinner table was where children learned that there were rules to a civilized life. For many, the powers of good manners crushed their souls, leaving them with little but the arrogance of having mastered the rules. For the best, manners provided the frame for a life of free will and self-confidence. Good manners allowed her to be both free and civilized, in the English manner. Her obsession with manners imposed a civility that shaped the way in which people disagreed.

I grew up in the Bronx, a place of fragmented cultures, of immigrants under severe and deforming pressure. There were many cultures – few any longer authentic, all in some way at odds with each other. Meredith’s table was a place of restraint. Mine was a place of combat. The hidden message about food was to eat as much as you can as quickly as you can, because who could really know when you would eat again? The table was a place of intellectual and emotional combat, where grievances were revealed, ideas were challenged and the new world we were in was analyzed for its strangeness. The grammar of debate took precedence over digestion.

She and I appear to many to be mismatched. She has never lost her belief that one must show restraint to appear to fit in. I have never lost my belief that the world is a dangerous place that must be confronted vigorously. Yet underneath these differences we formed a bond, based on a will to live as we will, but distinguishing carefully between who we were in private and who we were in public. This distinction is the root of both sanity and civility. I learned from her that there was a time and place for everything. I learned that without manners, however arbitrary they might be, life was chaos. I learned that combat, in speech and deed, might sometimes be necessary, but that it must be bound by the rituals of civility, or everything is destroyed. I am not sure she learned much from me.

Public Life

Manners make it possible to disagree within a framework of ritual that the disagreement does not lead to unhealable breaches. They allow you to live much of your life in unthinking patterns, freeing you to devote your thoughts to matters more pressing than how to greet someone, or whether to put on a tie. A tie is an example of this. It is a pointless piece of cloth. Yet, in putting it on, the act of dressing becomes complex and focuses you on the task ahead. You are putting on a tie because what you will now do has some importance – at least for me.

I grew up in the 1960s, when manners were held to be a form of hypocrisy, the sign of a false and inauthentic time. When Mickey Mantle hit a home run, he trotted around the bases as if his excellence was incidental and required no celebration. His undoubted elation was contained within ritual. Today, success in sports has fewer limits, and success and contempt for the other side frequently merge. When I was very young, courtship and marriage rituals were ringed with things you did not do. Of course, all these things were done, but they were hidden from the gaze of others. Part of it was shame, but part of it was also respect for manners, even in their breach. It had the added and urgent dimension that the most precious parts of growing up were private things.

The argument was that honesty was the highest virtue. Manners restrained honest expression and therefore denied us our authenticity. What came of this was an assault on the distinction between what we are in private and what we are in public. The great icon of this was Woodstock, where the music was less important than the fact that things that had been ruthlessly private had become utterly public. The shame that is attached to bad manners was seen as dishonesty, and unrestrained actions as honesty. The restraint of manners became mortally wounded.

Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower had come to despise each other by the time of Eisenhower’s inauguration. They hid this in public. The press, undoubtedly aware of the tension, chose not to focus on it. The ritual that was at the heart of the republic – the peaceful transfer of power ­– was the focus, and the personal feelings of each were hidden from view. They were dishonest in their public behavior, and in retrospect, the self-restraint with which they hid their honest feelings was their moral obligation. These were two dishonest men, honoring their nation in their dishonesty.

The U.S. flag flies at half-staff above the White House on Dec. 15, 2012. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The press was in on the act. The press is an institution specifically mentioned in our Constitution. Implicitly it is charged with telling the truth. The press minimized the fact that Franklin D. Roosevelt was disabled. The New York Times refrained from publishing that the Soviets had deployed missiles in Cuba. Reporters did not make public the rumors that Eisenhower might have been having an affair in England. All of these might have been true, but the press saw its role as that of an adversary to the state, but not an enemy.

Members of the press saw themselves as carrying out three roles: They were journalists, they were citizens, and they were well-mannered. As journalists, they published “all the news that’s fit to print.” As citizens, they wanted the U.S. to win World War II and would do nothing to hinder it. As ladies and gentlemen, they knew there were things that were true but did not warrant telling. There were always exceptions, but the prestige press, as they were then called, did not see these roles as incompatible.

It is important not to overstate the comity that existed, or neglect the exceptions, but the idea that good manners required certain behavior did matter. It is not clear to me that the republic suffered from the restraint of good manners and the ability of politicians and journalists to feel shame.

Authenticity

Today, we are surrounded by politicians who have decided that honesty requires that they show how deeply they detest each other, and a public that feels free to display its contempt for any with whom it disagrees. Our opponents have become our enemies, and our enemies have become monsters. This has become true for all political factions, and all political factions believe it is true only for their opponents. The idea that it is proper to hide and suppress our malice because not doing so is bad manners has been lost on all levels. With this has been lost the idea that it is possible to disagree on important matters, yet respect and even honor your opponent. Or, put another way, what has been lost is the obligation to appear to feel this way. Manners, after all, do not ask you to lie to yourself, but merely to the rest of the world.

The obsession with honesty over manners hides something important. Depending on who you are, depending on what you say, and depending on why you say it, honesty can be devastating. The idea that manners create inauthentic lives, lives in which true feelings are suppressed, is absolutely true. But it forgets the point that many of the things we feel ought to be suppressed, and many of the truths we know ought not to even be whispered. Indeed, the whisperer, when revealed, should feel shame. Without the ability to feel shame, humans are barbarians. It is manners, however false, that create the matrix in which shame can be felt. When we consider public life today, the inflicting of shame has changed from the subtle force of manners, to the ability to intimidate those you disagree with. As Francois de La Rochefoucauld said, “Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue.” Today, vice feels little need to apologize.

I am not here speaking of issues. The issues must be debated. I am speaking of the aesthetics of debate, of restraint and respect. I am speaking of the ability to believe something deeply, yet hold open the possibility that you have much to learn from those who disagree – or at least pretend to, which is almost as good.

What I have written here would seem to have little to do with geopolitics. It has everything to do with it. A nation has as its foundation the love of one’s own. That isn’t a saccharine concept. It is the idea that we are born in or come to a country and do not merely share core values with each other, but honor each other for being our fellow citizens, that our mutual bond is the fellowship of the nation. Underneath there may be much malice, but good manners require it be hidden. The collapse of manners undermines the love of one’s own and weakens the foundation of the nation. And since nations rise and fall, this is very much a geopolitical question.

In the end, being well-mannered in the highest sense is a personal obligation. It rests on the desire to be well-thought-of as a human being, and on caring what others think of you. Many of us lack that virtue. We lack the ability to be ashamed, or we have convinced ourselves that feeling shame is a weakness. We appear on television saying things to each other that decent human beings would not reveal they feel, and our viewers applaud. There is no federal program to resurrect pride in our bearing. It flows from each of us doing it. But that requires a common code of behavior, not fully rational but fully respected, and that has been eaten away. This is the place where I should mention social media, but what more is there to say on that, so consider it said. We all know that there is a terrible problem. But most of us think it is the person we dislike who is the problem, not us.

There is a concept worth ending on, which is the principle of intellectual rectitude, the idea that one must be cautious in thought and in speech. That we should know what we know, and know what we feel, and draw a sharp line between the two. There is a place for feelings, but passion can lead to recklessness, and societies crumble over the massive assault of passion. One of the things I try to do – frequently failing – is to exercise intellectual rectitude in my writing. Restraint in public life – that life that you live with others – is not a foundation of civilization. It is civilization.

There is a time to tell the truth, and a time to withhold it. In the Bible, two books are thought to be written by Solomon. One, Ecclesiastes, is about the fact that there is a time and place for everything. It is a book of manners and of despair. Manners and despair are linked, but if you don’t know there is a time and place for everything, then you are not human. Solomon also wrote the Song of Songs. It is a poem about love and the erotic. It allows us to see that while there is a time and place for everything, and eros in the public space is unacceptable, a life without the erotic is not worth living. The Song of Songs is our solace for the rigors of Ecclesiastes.

The loss of time and place is the loss of propriety and proportion. It is the destruction of both the public and the private, of the life of duty and the life of pleasure. Pleasure cannot live without duty nor duty without pleasure. Neither can exist without good manners. And this applies to the relationship of lovers, of citizens and of nations. And the beginning of the path to it is intellectual rectitude.

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